During a 1997 training exercise, candidates for an elite Mexican military unit, the Air-Mobile Special Forces Groups, were divided into two teams. Team A was packed into a truck and ambushed by Team B, which took prisoners. The methods used by Team B members to extract information from their captured rivals were not exactly in line with international law. “They were beaten,” said one former officer who observed the training. “They were smothered by putting a plastic bag on their heads; they were hit with sticks on the soles of their feet.” The interrogation went on, he told ICIJ, “until they managed to escape.”

The United States has provided more military training and aid to Mexico in recent years than ever before, and its training has helped shape the elite air-mobile forces, known by their Spanish acronym GAFE. Although there is no indication that such techniques were taught by U.S. trainers, the torture of incoming cadets is a routine part of GAFE’s internal training, according to the former officer. Worse than that, an ICIJ investigation has found, GAFE units have employed the same techniques against innocent civilians. In one notorious case discussed at length for the first time in this report, GAFE soldiers trained at Fort Bragg, N.C., helped round up and torture 20 civilians, one of whom died, over the alleged theft of a soldier’s pistol. The episode, in the town of Ocotán, is part of what human rights activists claim is an upswing in human rights violations in Mexico since the country’s military, at U.S. urging, got deeply involved in counternarcotics operations starting in 1996.

Between November 1996 and September 1998, the U.S. military trained 416 GAFE special forces soldiers, according to Col. Frank Pedrozo, chief military liaison officer at the U.S. Embassy in Mexico. Most of the GAFE troops were trained at Fort Bragg, N.C., by the U.S. 7th Special Forces Group; others were trained at the former U.S. School of the Americas, now renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, at Fort Benning, Ga. The U.S. training focused on drug interdiction procedures, preserving crime scene evidence, individual survival skills and small unit tactics, such as marksmanship and reconnaissance, a Fort Bragg spokeswoman said. Army Special Forces soldiers also provided GAFE soldiers with human rights training throughout, she added. Although the program ended in 1998, the “train-the-trainer” concept was used, whereby U.S.-trained Mexican special forces return home and pass on what they learned to their own military units.

Like U.S. Special Forces, Mexican GAFE forces wear camouflage uniforms for jungle warfare, black overalls and ski masks for urban operations. The first Mexican special forces group was created in 1986, but it was the 1994 outbreak of the rebellion led by the Zapatista National Liberation Army in southern Mexico that led Mexico to expand the GAFE force. There were 12 GAFE units by 1995, and the formation began to gain real weight in the Mexican military following the October 1995 meeting of President Clinton and Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo. That Washington meeting ushered in a new era in U.S.-Mexican relations, leading to Mexico’s decision to engage its military as a primary combatant in the drug war. The number of GAFE units and the acquisition of military equipment—helicopters, boats, vehicles, arms— expanded to meet the demands of the new mandate. Today, Mexico has a special forces school, four training sites and has created 109 GAFE groups, which include 73 air-mobile and 36 amphibious units. Each group could have up to 30 soldiers, sources said, suggesting there could be more than 3,200 Mexican special forces troops. However, ICIJ was unable to determine whether all or even most units have that many soldiers, and the Mexican Defense Secretariat would not reveal the total number of GAFE troops.

In the late 1990s, the Clinton administration was under pressure from the U.S. Congress to encourage Mexico to play a stronger, more effective role in the drug war. Drug trafficking at the time was only one of Mexico’s problems. The Zedillo administration faced new guerrilla uprisings as well as a serious economic crisis. The country was also reeling from the 1994 assassination of the ruling party’s presidential candidate, Luis Donaldo Colosio. Narcotraffickers had infiltrated most Mexican law enforcement agencies, including the federal prosecutor’s office, whose personnel were implicated in the 1985 murder of Enrique Camarena, a special agent with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. Relations deteriorated to the point that Mexico paid for its own counternarcotics operations from 1993 through 1995, under President Carlos Salinas. In 1996, U.S. aid to Mexico began to rise as the United States had found new law enforcement partners south of the border—Mexican soldiers. Since that year, most U.S. counternarcotics aid has been directed to the Mexican military.

After the Clinton-Zedillo summit, U.S. and Mexican officials discussed military involvement in the drug war, although Mexican officials claim the decision was theirs alone. “If there was a direct request from the United States to get the military involved in fighting drugs, I never heard about it,” says Javier Molina, who at the time was director of Mexico’s National Institute Against Drugs, a federal police agency. “I believe the Cabinet decided to do it because it was an urgent and necessary alternative to the state of things.”

Mexico carried out extensive counter-drug efforts, including marijuana eradication, from 1975 to 1992, when it received $237 million in counter-narcotics aid from the United States. But the Mexican military’s traditional role in counter narcotics had been restricted to crop eradication. In 1996, it began to support law enforcement in coordination with civilian police agencies. The shift was controversial. The military’s limited role in Mexican life was a hard-fought victory of the post-revolutionary period. And the Mexican military has had a long tradition of independence, one that stems from wars with the United States. “It’s a matter of dignity. We still commemorate the war against U.S. troops, and deaths of civilians and marines defending against the U.S. invasion of Veracruz in 1914. It’s history that all Mexicans learn,” Gen. Ramón Mota, president of the Senate´s National Defense Committee, said in an interview.

The military’s new role in the drug war generated anguished debate among Mexicans. On the one hand, many citizens were tired of rising drug violence and welcomed a more visible military presence in crime fighting. But human rights organizations and opposition leaders warned against abuses as the military organized drug raids, supported airport customs operations and established checkpoints on highways all over the country.

Today, the Mexican military is closer to the United States than ever before. From 1984 to 1992, a total of 512 Mexican troops were trained by the United States, an average of 57 students per year. Since 1996, the United States has trained more than 4,000 Mexican military personnel, an average exceeding 800 a year, a U.S. Defense Department spokesman said. Some of the courses took place in Mexico, in the states of Guerrero, Chiapas, Veracruz and Mexico City. The increased cooperation made Mexico the top recipient in Latin America of International Military Education and Training program funds in 1996 through 1999 and second after Colombia in 2000. Mexican trainees included GAFE elite soldiers, trainers, intelligence officers, pilots and technicians. And Mexico ranked number one among nations in the number of soldiers trained at the School of the Americas in 1997 and 1998 (it was no. 2 in 1996 and no. 3 in 1999).

Mexico also received other forms of U.S. military aid in the late 1990s. Including Pentagon and State Department counternarcotics funds, Mexico was granted a total of $152.7 million in aid to its military and police from 1997 to 2000. The aid included 73 UH-1H Bell helicopters that the United States provided to support GAFE operations and four C-26 aircraft, also for anti-narcotics purposes, along with training and spare parts. In 1999, however, Mexico returned all the helicopters but one, which crashed, after the Pentagon warned that the Vietnam-era helicopters had mechanical problems that made them unsafe to fly. The United States also provided Mexico with a UH-1H flight simulator that was installed in Culiacán, Sinaloa, in northwestern Mexico, and still operates with U.S. fundings, although the Mexican military no longer have the UH-1H. According to a source involved in the program, the simulator “provides basic training, like starting out driving a Volkswagen to then go on with more sophisticated cars.” In addition, Mexico bought $63 million in U.S. government-issue armaments from 1990 to 1999 and spent $187 million on arms purchases from private U.S. firms in the same period.

GAFE troops deployed throughout Mexico

All U.S. training of GAFEs was meant to be for counterdrug purposes. But according to a Mexican military publication, the GAFE units were trained to confront “either narcotrafficking or outlaw armed groups.” GAFE troops were deployed throughout Mexico, including in the state of Chiapas, where leftist Zapatista guerrillas have operated since 1994, and in the states of Oaxaca and Guerrero, where leftist guerrillas from the Revolutionary Popular Army launched attacks in 1996. GAFE units have also been assigned to different chains of command within the Mexican military and civilian forces. The Defense Secretariat and the military police each have separate GAFE groups. One thousand Mexican soldiers were assigned in 1997 to the federal prosecutor’s office, of which at least 650 were GAFE personnel in the investigations branch. Many were assigned to the three Bilateral Border Task Force groups, which investigate and exchange information with U.S. agencies.

Anti-drug trafficking is the principal focus of the GAFE soldiers based near the town of Ocotán, in the state of Jalisco northwest of Mexico City. But drugs had nothing to do with the violent rampage by GAFE officers, some U.S.-trained, that began on Dec. 13, 1997, after a soldier was reported AWOL along with his pistol. Legal files in the case, to which ICIJ had access, establish that the trouble began when the local GAFE unit commander, Lt. Col. Julián Guerrero, learned that a soldier had failed to report for morning roll call and that his weapon, a black 9 mm HKP-7 pistol, was missing. It later surfaced that a non-commissioned officer, Antonio Flores, had been drinking with the soldier when he lost his gun in a fight with some civilians. Guerrero, a special forces veteran trained in combat at the School of the Americas in 1981, and his superior, Gen. Eulalio Fonseca, gave conflicting testimony about what happened next.

Fonseca said he told Guerrero to forget about the incident. Guerrero claims that Fonseca ordered him to get the gun back. In any case, that’s what he did. The raids began around midnight. GAFE soldiers went searching for young men who might know something about the missing gun.

Young men tell of torture

Miguel Angel Ramírez, 16, left a dance party with two friends that night. On the street they met another friend, Ricardo. The four young men did not see an approaching black van with its lights off until it was very close. When someone yelled “Halt!’’ the four barely had a chance to turn around before armed men dressed in black and wearing black ski masks jumped from the back of the van. They forced the youths into the van and ordered them to lie on their stomachs. The van drove off, stopping again to pick up more young men. Two other vans were also gathering up suspects. A total of 20 men, ages 14 to 20, were apprehended. They were separated into groups of three or four, blindfolded, taken to the officers’ dorm rooms and ordered to lie on their stomachs. The soldiers beat them as they demanded information about the missing pistol.

“They tortured us by sticking some kind of needles in our feet and they also beat us with sticks,” one of the victims told the Mexican government’s State of Jalisco Human Rights Commission. The soldiers splashed the victims’ bodies with water so that the beatings would be less likely to leave bruises. Several victims also testified that the soldiers put plastic bags over their heads to cut off air. The victims screamed and pleaded for mercy. Finally, around 3:30 a.m., nearly 24 hours after the search for the missing weapon began, one of the youths said a man named Salvador Jiménez, 25, had the pistol.

The military brought Jiménez back to the officers’ dorm. Under torture, he implicated a friend, Margarito Ramos. The military apprehended Ramos and his brother. The three young men were blindfolded, stripped of their clothes and beaten while standing naked. Ramos and his brother were released in the morning, but Jiménez suffered complications and died. His bruised corpse was found five days later in a grave covered with rocks and branches. A toenail on the right foot had been pulled out.

The other victims’ visits to a local health clinic attracted attention and prompted the Mexican military to investigate. Twenty-seven GAFE soldiers were later charged in military court with kidnapping and other crimes, while their deputy commander, Capt. Rogelio Solís, and the commander, Lt. Col. Guerrero, were charged with murder.

In the 1980s, during a period of widespread guerrilla warfare throughout Central America, the U.S. School of the Americas produced training manuals that advocated limited forms of torture as part of interrogation techniques. The CIA also produced a training manual in 1983 that included elaborate discussions of “coercive techniques” in interrogation, including “inducing physical weakness; prolonged constraint; prolonged exertion; extremes of heat, cold or moisture; and deprivation of food or sleep.” After the case was made public in Mexico, the United States acknowledged that six of the GAFE soldiers implicated in the Jiménez incident had been trained in U.S. military schools. Pentagon officials say they have revised their training courses to ensure emphasis on human rights.

Military investigators later tortured some of the GAFE suspects, according to court documents. The GAFE detainees identified several of their torturers as agents from the Military Police or the Anti-Drug Intelligence Center. Since 1997, troops from the anti-drug center have also been receiving U.S. training.

Two commanders pay dearly 

In late 1999, a military court absolved most of the accused soldiers, who remained in the military. But the two GAFE commanders paid dearly for the torture, murder and clandestine burial of Salvador Jiménez. Guerrero was sentenced to 15 years in prison, while Solís was sentenced to 16 years. A third officer, Lt. Edson Morales, served three years and was discharged from the army. The Military Prosecutor’s Office paid the mother of Salvador Jiménez about $7,000 in compensation for her son’s murder.

Illegal detentions, kidnappings, disappearances and murders involving members of the Mexican military have all increased since the military entered the counter-drug operations in force, according to Michael Chamberlin, coordinator of the private human rights organization Todos los Derechos para Todos, or All Rights for All, based in Mexico City. Mexican military officials acknowledge that human rights complaints have soared, particularly in Chiapas, Guerrero and Oaxaca, where many military units are deployed in counterinsurgency activities. But they claim that most of these complaints are politically motivated untruths. Of the 2,088 human rights complaints against the military recorded by the government’s National Commission for Human Rights from 1990 to February 2001, it recommended prosecution in only 24 of the cases.

“The analysis of the figures discredits any non-governmental accusations against the army for allegedly being a systematic violator of human rights,” Col. Eduardo Gómez of the Military Prosecutor’s office told a July 2000 conference in Mexico City on human rights and the military.

Non-governmental human rights groups, however, see the situation differently. The government human rights office “has been very reluctant to issue recommendations against the military,” Chamberlin told ICIJ, “and that was an excuse for the government to say nothing was happening in Chiapas.” His organization has documented, he says, 125 cases of abuse, torture, disappearances and executions throughout the country from 1995 to 1999 in which government soldiers are implicated. “Abuses occur in small indigenous communities up in the mountains where people don’t speak Spanish and have no means to call for help [and they cannot] identify the soldiers,” said Jorge Fernández, a lawyer for another private group, the Miguel Agustín Pro Human Rights Center of Mexico City.

London-based Amnesty International has detected a deterioration in the human rights situation in Mexico in recent years. “Torture, extra-judicial executions, disappearances and arbitrary detentions are widespread and the perpetrators frequently act with impunity,” according to a 1999 special report on Mexico. Mexico also suffers from a lack of transparency and credibility in its investigations and prosecutions of human rights crimes, the report said.

According to the National Commission for Human Rights, more complaints are filed against the Mexican attorney general’s office than any other civilian entity, yet the attorney general’s office is charged with investigating federal crimes, including human rights abuses. Active-duty military personnel are not subject to civilian prosecution and are instead tried by military courts. No records of any of the military trials are made public. The Mexican military’s lack of transparency in general remains an unresolved issue. “It’s called accountability,” Raúl Benítez, a military expert and professor at the National Defense College, the top Mexican military school, told ICIJ. “Mexican armed forces don’t have it yet.”

Many human rights abuses have occurred in Chiapas, which has little drug activity but much social conflict. Ninety-two percent of Chiapas’ population lives in poverty, three-quarters of its residents are illiterate, and indoor plumbing is a luxury known to few. Between 1993, just before the Zapatista rebellion broke out in Chiapas’ forested highlands, and 1998, the government-funded State Human Rights Commission in Chiapas recorded 5,628 complaints—an average of one every eight hours. GAFE units have been deployed in the area since 1997 in support of counterinsurgency efforts. A Mexican journalist, Juan Balboa, saw GAFE units in the village of San Cayetano, a center of guerrilla support 90 minutes north of the Chiapas capital of Tuxtla Gutiérrez.

“They arrived in military and state government helicopters,” Balboa told ICIJ, “and they were dressed in green uniforms.” According to the logos on their left arms, they were from the GAFE 7th Military Region headquartered in Tuxtla Gutiérrez. Military public affairs officers at the 7th Military Region declined to identify themselves over the phone and told ICIJ that requests for information had to be made in person. But when journalists arrived at the heavily fortified headquarters building, they were not allowed beyond the street entrance.

Mexican military officials claim success in their counternarcotics war. Half of the cocaine seized in Mexico from 1995 to 2000 was confiscated by military forces, who also eradicated 75 percent of the marijuana. Moreover, the military has arrested 7,700 drug criminals, including some leading smugglers.

While some U.S. officials praise the Mexican military’s accomplishments, others have been critical. “There are numerous reports of drug-related corruption involving military units and at least to date they have not been successful in locating and arresting the leaders of the criminal organizations,” Thomas A. Constantine testified before Congress in March 1999 shortly before retiring as the DEA administrator.

Today, Mexico has about 25,000 military troops assigned to the drug war. As the military’s role has increased, so, reportedly, has corruption within military ranks. In 1997, Mexico’s drug czar, Gen. Jesús Gutiérrez Rebollo, was charged with drug crimes. Only months before, then-U.S. drug czar Barry McCaffrey had proclaimed his confidence in Rebollo. More than 150 Mexican soldiers and officers were tried for drug-related crimes from 1995 to 2000, retired Gen. Alvaro Vallarta, secretary of the House of Representatives’ defense committee, said in an interview.

Under President Vicente Fox, who ended the ruling PRI party’s 71-year hold on power in Mexico, U.S.-Mexican relations are deepening further, and so is the Mexican military’s involvement in the drug war.

Pentagon support to Mexico has increased in 2001, with 1,363 Mexican troops scheduled for training, at a cost of $5.9 million. Mexico is seeking, however, to change the bilateral counternarcotics strategy. “We are dissatisfied with the framework,” Adolfo Aguilar Zínser, Fox´s security adviser, said in a visit to Washington in April. Mexico is looking for a more effective maritime counter-drug operation in the Pacific and wants to revise the entire drug cooperation program, he said.

Fox says the military won’t be excluded from his drive to make Mexican institutions more accountable and transparent. That said, he has confirmed the military’s involvement in the anti-drug war. In fact, he appointed Gen. Rafael Macedo as attorney general, the first military officer to head the top civilian police post. Macedo was the military prosecutor in charge at the time that GAFE defendants were tortured during the Ocotán criminal investigation.